As a young boy I always considered my cousin Luke to be a role model and one of my best friends.
Growing into my adolescence and seeing my parents move into a new house in the "big city" just down the street from him, his influence on my life became even more important to me. Often I would look to him for guidance or to learn exactly what not to do in various life situations.
But long before we settled in Winnipeg -- a time before my voice became squeaky and the apparition of facial hair turned me into a werewolf -- Luke was just a seven year old kid with a best friend named Nick.
I hated Nick. Despised him even. I selfishly prayed to God that he would stop befriending my cousin.
Now it wasn't that Nick was a bad egg; far from, it actually. He was a shy, lanky kid who had impeccably good manners and a caring heart as big as the early 90's glasses that donned his face. He was the Milhouse to my cousin's Bart. This displeased me greatly, mostly because I felt that I was the Milhouse to my cousin's Bart. As it turns out, I was more like the Puppy Goo Goo that Milhouse played with from time to time.
If you're a fan of the movie Swingers, then the best way to put it is to say I was the guy behind the guy.
Countless times Mom would drop my two sisters and I off at my cousin's as she was on her way to work, a place we would stay until Dad was able to pick us up after he left the office. These visits normally lasted two or three hours and I always hoped that once I got there I would find out that Nick was sick, out of town or no longer friends with my cousin. Then I'd enter the front door to the sound of two best friends laughing as they built castles out of Lego, knowing that I was about to begrudgingly play the role of the sidekick's sidekick yet again.
I started asking Mom if she could just put me out of my misery and hire a babysitter rather than drive me to the city where I would sit through the hours of agony.
It was in 1994 that I first learned that Nick and his family had packed up and moved to Toronto. On the car ride into Winnipeg, Mom had told me that Luke wasn't taking the news so well and that I should be sensitive to his feelings on this particular day.
Yeah right, I thought. I was the happiest 8-year old in the 204 area code and now I was being asked to contain my glee?
Clearly that wasn't going to happen.
Mom couldn't put the car in park fast enough when she pulled the family Buick Le Sabre up their driveway. I bounced out of the backseat, ran up the steps and flung open the front door with all my might, eager to seek out Luke.
I found him minutes later bouncing a tennis ball alone in his darkened basement.
"So, I guess I'm your new best friend, huh!?"
He greeted my absurd question with silence.
"What are we going to do today? Now that Nick is gone we can do some really fun stuff!"
"Come on, let's play. Why do you gotta be like this!?"
He finally decided it was time to acknowledge me. With a hoarse quiver in his voice he sadly muttered, "I don't think I want to play today".
This is when I first understood what The Human Factor was all about.
I didn't like Nick but it was for the most selfish reasons imaginable. Luke on the other hand saw him as his partner in crime and losing him was like losing a part of himself. They saw each other every day, while I only saw him twice a week. They trusted each other. Confided in each other. As best friends, they loved each other. I couldn't understand it until I saw how sad he was, but Nick truly brought out the best in Luke. Now it looked like he was dying on the inside. Although I felt Nick's milkshake didn't bring all the boys to the yard, Luke clearly felt differently.
Here is a hockey player that many fans have written off as a liability. A player that needs to be moved for goods and services of benefit to the roster moving forward. Outside of putting himself out of position trying to lay the big hit and getting in front of shots, he's labeled as having little value from those who want to cast him off, myself included.
But if you take The Human Factor into consideration, Stuart is as integral to a locker room as they come.
He is a player that his teammates admire and look up to. It was he who came up with the idea of awarding a fighter helmet to the player of the game, an award that seems to have galvanized the team.
To a man, everyone in that room loves Stuart, the same way that Luke loved to get into trouble with Nick. I've seen what happens when a child loses a comrade that important to them and I assume that even in the world of paid professionals, The Human Factor still takes its toll. The Jets are a team trying to build themselves an identity since their move from Atlanta. When they finally figure out in which direction they want to take this franchise, it will be Mark Stuart who is the pulse of that identity.
My aunt and uncle still live in the same house where they raised Luke and his two siblings. A few months ago we were there for a family get-together and I was asked to go to the basement fridge to fetch some ice cold beers for us to enjoy. After flipping on the light switch in their rec room, my eyes immediately fixated on the calligraphy of two seven year olds etched permanently in the floor.
This is the fort of Luke and Nick. Girls: DO NOT ENTER! Best friends - 1992.
What an ass I was.
Let's get back to Love Hate.
Three things I love this week
Trade Deadline Day: For what will be the seventh consecutive year, I am getting together with a close group of friends to partake in the NHL's Trade Deadline. It's always nice to get together with the guys and have a little breakfast before talking about hockey for an entire day. This year should be no exception.
Playoff Fever: While I'm steadfast in my belief that the Jets will not finish in a playoff position, I still have to acknowledge that it's refreshing to see them back in the hunt after I wrote them for dead just over a month ago. This city is filled with passionate fans and it's great to see them rally behind their team as the number of important "must win" games ratchet up.
A full line-up: It's amazing how much deeper this roster can look with a healthy Evander Kane and Jim Slater. The fourth line actually looks like a real fourth line! If Winnipeg is lucky enough to avoid injury down the stretch, they'll remain players on the Western Conference's playoff bubble.
Three things I hate this week
False hope?: Yes, it's good to see the Jets winning again, of this there is no doubt. But during their stretch under Paul Maurice they have won a number of games in spite of themselves. Case in point, they were vastly outplayed by the Nashville Predators yet lived to tell the tale of their glory. I just don't want fans to worship false idols as the Jets' aren't exactly as good as their 11-3-1 record under Maurice indicates. As fortunate as they've been since the coaching change, the likelihood of them going on a 5-7-3 skid is just as likely to happen.
A quiet deadline: Now I'm not the guy who's going to come in here and say that Kevin Cheveldayoff should trade all his unrestricted free agents just so that he can get value for them. There is a delicate balance between competing in the now and competing in the future. But I will say that they should actively explore trading one of Olli Jokinen or Devin Setoguchi should the market be favourable to sellers. I'm sure management will do their due diligence and make the best decisions they can for the team, but I remain slightly worried that a chance at the playoffs this year might blind the long term goal.
Vampardy: He may not look as nefarious as Bram Stoker's Dracula, but there is more than meets the eye with Adam Pardy. Who else can suck the life out of the game and shimmer when doused with beer quite like Vampardy? No one. Lather your necks with garlic, lest you wish to be his latest victim.